Latinos in Dixie

Hispanic immigrants are changing the face of the rural South, according to a new book by a sociology professor

Helen Marrow grew up in Tarboro, a town of 11,000 in eastern North Carolina that she describes as a place where “everybody knows everybody,” and residents are proud of their rural, Southern roots. But even then she saw changes coming to that traditional way of life. In the early 1990s, a Mexican family moved into what had once been slave quarters on a former cotton plantation and, over time, more immigrant families took up residence in the small town.

A decade later, in 2002, one of her sociology professors at Harvard asked her what she knew about these newcomers. Not enough, she said, and decided she wanted to learn more. Now Marrow, an assistant professor of sociology and Latin American studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, has published a new book, New Destinations Dreaming: Immigration, Race and Legal Status in the Rural American South (Stanford University Press). It explores the Hispanic immigrant experience in the rural South and considers how and why patterns of migration have shifted over the last decade.

Once drawn to the border states of California and Texas or to cities in the Northeast, Latin American immigrants—many of them in the country illegally—are now settling in communities throughout the country, with the rural South a popular destination. Once these immigrants arrive, they are more likely to stay put than their predecessors, Marrow says, because it has become increasingly difficult to cross the border.

In her book, Marrow describes and analyzes these demographic changes, honing in on what it is like for the migrants to settle in their new communities. She also highlights what life is like for those here illegally. There are 11 million people living in the United States without legal immigration papers, and the impact on their lives is enormous, says Marrow.

U.S. policies regarding immigration have toughened in recent years, with tighter border controls, a crackdown on illegal employees in the workplace and a growing likelihood of detention and deportation.

“For adults, being here illegally circumscribes almost every facet of their lives, and it has gotten worse over time,” says Marrow. The inability to become a citizen means many immigrants are underpaid—employers know they can’t speak up and complain—and they are often unable to get an education past high school or participate in community life, fearful of drawing attention to themselves by joining parent-teacher organizations or other community groups.

Despite these drawbacks, Hispanics move to the rural South for a good reason: that’s where the jobs are. Large food processing firms, eager to be near farms providing chickens and other foods, sought tax breaks and in return built plants in rural communities—with the promise of employing local people. But things often didn’t work out as planned.

First, says Marrow, there weren’t enough people to staff the huge factories, which might need upwards of 2,500 workers. The work is grueling and unpleasant, leading many of the local residents to quit. But the immigrants stay on, even though opportunities for advancement are limited.

A typical job might involve eviscerating chickens or rapidly cutting meat into small pieces as it is processed. “In the plant I studied,” Marrow says, “there is what is called the live-hang department, which is better paid than some of the other jobs. Workers take live chickens off a truck and hang them upside down to start going through the killing process.” Local people usually don’t want to do that job, so that leaves the immigrants to do the work.

Meanwhile, food processing plants, like many employers today, skirt the issue of legality by not hiring the workers directly, instead using subcontractors to bring in employees.

Besides employment, the South offers other opportunities for immigrant workers: the cost of living is dramatically lower than in the Northeast and West. A worker might be able to buy a trailer and own a home.

Many of the newcomers Marrow met and talked to during her research also appreciate life in a small town, despite its challenges. While those coming from cities have to adjust to small-town life, the neighborhood social contacts and the ability to meet people are seen as positives. Plus, they say there are fewer problems with gangs.

The influx of newcomers has in part revitalized many rural Southern communities, which have been facing economic and population decline. That has happened in the rural Midwest and rural West as well. “It has brought in a productive workforce, a consumer base, a potential market for many products and services, new ‘clients’ for declining school systems, etc.,” Marrow says.

At the same time, she says, Hispanics encounter a lack of understanding about their culture, and schools are often ill-equipped to educate children whose native language is not English. Negative stereotypes about Hispanics prevail, she says, and tensions exist between blacks and Hispanics, who often end up competing with each other for jobs and services.

Undocumented and Invisible

The inability to gain legal status, and eventually citizenship, is what hangs heaviest over the lives of many of these immigrants, to the point that they cannot run a simple errand that most of us take for granted, Marrow says. Even fishing without a license has resulted in deportation in Tennessee. Because rural communities have little in the way of public transportation, people are dependent on cars. But undocumented immigrants cannot get drivers’ licenses since the REAL ID Act of 2005, which established new and tighter federal standards for state drivers’ licenses and identification cards.

This has important spillover effects. “Their kids would love to play in the band or be a cheerleader or play football, but they can’t stay after school, because their parents can’t drive and pick them up,” Marrow says. While education is guaranteed through high school for the children of these immigrants, they are not eligible for in-state tuition at a public college, shutting the door on the opportunity for a better life.

As difficult as it is, once immigrants move to rural Southern towns, they stay, in part because it has become so much harder to cross the border in recent years. “We’ve tried to build up the border and militarize it in the hope people will stop crossing,” says Marrow. But that’s also made it more likely that undocumented immigrants will stay here once they get here. “It’s created a much larger undocumented population that lives in a much harder and more precarious situation,” she says.

Marrow is critical of U.S. policy toward undocumented immigrants, arguing that it makes little sense to prevent them from having access to health care, education and other services that would help them be productive members of their communities. She points out that while policies of economic integration have encouraged a freer flow of capital, goods and markets between the United States and Mexico and Canada, “we’re saying we want labor to move less. It’s a fundamental opposition that just does not work.”

The challenge is a thorny one, and Marrow doesn’t pretend to have the answers. “There are 11 million people here who are not legally acknowledged by our government and society,” she says. “It’s just not feasible to say we’ll send them back. And it’s not smart to say we’ll keep them down.”


Marjorie Howard can be reached at


Back to Top